Stillman cover American Confidential

Cover Image of American Confidential. Melville House Publishing. Copyright © 2023 by Deanne Stillman

In 1867, the Chisholm Trail opened up, the storied frontier path ferrying cattle from San Antonio north-ward through Austin and Waco and then into Fort Worth. There, the cowboys would stop for a spell, gather supplies, rest the longhorns, gallop their horses into saloons to announce their arrival, fire guns, drink, revel—welall the things for which that rowdy era is known. A lot of it happened in a certain part of Fort Worth known as Hell’s Half Acre. This was the equivalent of Storeyville in New Orleans and, like Storeyville, it was a red-light district. It was also a hangout for notorious outlaw gangs such as the Fort Worth Five, aka the Wild Bunch, whose members included Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Then there were the Fort Worth Stockyards, the place where herds that had been driven up from the South converged and then were driven on to slaughterhouses in Chicago or, later, placed on rail-road cars for the same destination. The stockyards are now a national historic district that has long maintained its original features, but with museums (a new one for John Wayne), reenactments of cattle drives featuring famous longhorns with names like Jake that kids can ride through the dusty streets, and replays of shoot-outs involving frontier rivals in period costume (“It’s 3:00 p.m. Watch someone get shot. At 6:00 p.m., watch it again”). Although the cattle drive era came to an end in 1884, that part of the American story of course endures in a million different ways, including when young Lee Harvey Oswald posed atop a pony in his front yard, dressed in Western regalia with a bandanna around his neck, and entering a stream that lures boys and girls everywhere. “Howdy partner,” the traveling photographer behind the camera might have said—“ready to hit the trail?”—and then the wannabe cowboy looked at the camera and smiled. It was soon after this that Marguerite, her new husband, and Lee hit the road to meet Ed’s son, off on an American adventure.

In 1917, Boston newsman Arthur Chapman developed a fascination with the West as he traveled across the land and proceeded to broaden the concept of Fort Worth as its progenitor, writing a poem in response to various Western governors who could not come to an agreement about which states should be considered “the West.” It was called “Out Where the West Begins,” and its first verse goes like this:

Out where the handclasp’s a little stronger,
Out where the smile dwells a little longer, That’s where the West begins;
Out where the sun is a little brighter,
Where the snows that fall are a trifle whiter, Where the bonds of home are a wee bit tighter— 
That’s where the West begins.

The poem became an instant hit, reprinted in many venues and on colorful postcards bearing frontier scenes depicting wide open spaces, cactus, mountains, buffalo—any elements that conjured the land of the national dream, advancing the idea that neither latitude nor longitude signified the launch point of the West but that it was a state of mind. Yet Fort Worth was not to be outdone by this lofty idea. Amon Carter, prominent citizen and vice president of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, took note of the poem’s popularity and reattached his city’s centrality to this concept, suggesting that the Chamber of Commerce adopt “Out Where the West Begins” as the city’s slogan.

In 1957, in one of her varied parade of jobs, Marguerite Oswald became a greeter for the Fort Worth Welcome Wagon, a nationwide organization that did exactly that: roll out a station wagon and welcome newcomers to a particular city. In her position as greeter, Marguerite would drive up to meet the freshly arrived in their just-purchased homes in a car that said “Bob’s Buick” or the name of some other dealership on the driver’s door, with the phone number below. She would present a gift basket bearing goods and certificates from local merchants, no doubt forcing a smile that may have seemed authentic, and in fact maybe was, because, after all, America is the land of starting over! There’s always a second chance right here in the US of A! Haven’t you heard? and then say something along the lines of Welcome to Fort Worth! If you stand in front of your house, I’ll take your picture. Can you smile and say ‘Land of the free’? Of course you can. There . . . that looks perfect. Did you know that this is where the West begins? And then she would drive off and her mood instantly soured and she would wonder why her son Lee hardly ever spoke to her any more, was he going to turn out like the other boys and leave as soon as he had the chance, what was wrong with them—she put food on the table, ok maybe it wasn’t steak dinners—but what did they expect from a woman in her station? Maid service? Do I look like some sort of servant? “Lee-boy is a good son,” she’d tell herself. “He won’t move away. He loves me, I know he does.”

From American Confidential: Uncovering the Bizarre Story of Lee Harvey Oswald and his Mother. Used with permission of the publisher, Melville House Publishing. Copyright © 2023 by Deanne Stillman.

Deanne Stillman is the author of books including Blood Brothers: The Story of the Strange Friendship Between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill and American Confidential: Uncovering the Bizarre Story of Lee Harvey Oswald and his Mother.